The Curate’s Egg: A Review of Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples

A curate’s egg is a very English expression, one that means something that is apparently bad but had some good qualities mixed in with it.  This expression came to me quite often as I pondered my review for a book that is now being well received in many quarters of the Church:  Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus, by Sherry Weddell.  Weddell, a writer and speaker with the Siena Institute, based in Seattle, is a well know blogger who has written on issues of conversion and evangelization in the past, and in this book gives her prescriptions as to what the Church should do both to evangelize those outside the Church but also those within her fold, in a contemporary climate that is increasingly inhospitable to its proclamation.

To be succinct:  some parts were good, some parts I positively disliked.  I do believe Weddell points to some very serious problems with the Church, and proposes some serious remedies which ought to have a wider hearing than I suspect the book will have.   Whatever else she accomplishes, she does convince you that you need to be challenged in your faith, no matter at what stage you are, to embrace your vocation to holiness.  And must say, I certainly did feel challenged by the book.

Weddell points to the multitude of survey data chronicling the collapse of mass attendance and other indicators that confirm what everyone in the Western Church, in Europe and the Americas, has known for a while:  the Church is shrinking, both in terms of numbers but also in terms of the number of self-identified Catholics who understand and articulate the basic doctrines of the faith when asked to do so. Weddell is aware that this is a broader trend within the Western world, and that other Christian bodies are experiencing the same decline, but diagnoses several problems she believes are peculiar to Catholicism in America.   One of these is the idea that, if they keep taking the Sacraments, people will eventually come back to the faith.  Weddell notes the very mechanical nature this view of the Sacraments exudes, and rightly notes the Catholic teaching that one must have the prosper disposition for the sacrament to have its effect.  She also, rightly in my view, notes that the essential pattern of Catholic education and catechesis, formed in the wake of Trent, is in many respects inadequate to the needs of Catholics today, especially young adult Catholics.  It has been my experience that most 20 and 30 something Catholics are sort of set adrift, again, with the expectation they will come back when they have families.  Finally, she also notes the lack of a sense of personal relationship with God in many Catholic parishes, citing the number that 30% of Catholics do not believe in a personal God. Her anecdotal evidence about Catholics getting nervous when someone starts talking about their relationship with God, also coincides with my own for the most part.  Indeed, for a long time in my life, it was my own!

Weddell’s solution for all of this is contained in her title.  She encourages the idea of “intentional discipleship” as a mantra and a programme for revitalizing the Church.  Intentional discipleship, as far as I can tell, means emphasizing a personal relationship with God, developing the spiritual gifts of the members of a parish, and personal individual effort on the part of the individual believer.  Weddell puts great emphasis on this conscious effort of the individual believer to realize the universal call to holiness in their lives.  She also relates this idea to the challenge of relating to 21st century Americans, many of whom have never heard or understood the basic tenets of Christian belief.  Weddell takes great pains to point out how people who do not know Christ personally as of yet need to be brought into a relationship with him first, through the ministration of Christians who model Him in their lives, before they can understand fully the teachings of the Church.  Even more intriguingly, she says that people who are seeking out the faith need to be have this relationship first before they are introduced to the greater mysteries of the liturgy.  Indeed, maybe the strongest aspect of the book, for a former unbeliever such as myself, is Weddell’s knowing and compassionate description of the psychology of those who are seeking God but don’t yet really believe in him.   Finally, she talks in very eloquent terms about t those individuals who are living the faith “intentionally” but feel lost in their own parishes for lack of support and fellowship.  Once again, this comment about the lack of community and support resonates with me personally, and I have numerous friends both Catholic and non-Catholic who have told me of their struggles to find spiritual community in their respective communities of worship.   The parts of the book that deal with these practical experiences of real people, along with the parts where she gives advice on how to approach them and communicate with them, make the book worth reading.

However, I have some serious concerns about Weddell’s book.  I’ll start with the least serious issue I found there.  First, though much of what she says about personal effort, individual responsibility for one’s call to holiness, and the like, are not exactly new ideas.  Much of what she has to say on this score was being said by Jose Maria Escriva in the 1940s, and Opus Dei and other organizations like Communion and Liberation teach similar ideas.  The only substantive differences I can see in what Weddell is proposing is that, perhaps, she puts a greater emphasis on linking this ideal of intentional discipleship to evangelization than do groups like Opus Dei.  But otherwise, their substance of what she is saying seems quite the same to me.

Much more serious than this is the way Weddell presents her ideas, and her basic criticisms of what is going on in the Church; in particular, I find the language she uses to introduce her ideal of intentional discipleship troubling at times.  Now before I go on, let me state that there are some who have criticized Weddell for taking too “Protestant” an approach.  As someone who has on more than one occasion disavowed the whole notion of “Protestantism” I could hardly make such an accusation against her (nor would I think it charitable to do so).  And if one means by the charge of “Protestantism” that she suggests making a more serious effort to live out the faith and to read the bible more often, then by all means, let us be more Protestant.   But I think I know what these critics are talking about when they make this rather knee-jerk accusation against Weddell.   I do believe these are mainly problems of presentation and structure, rather than of substance, but that does mean they are not serious problems, at least in my estimation.

First, Weddell often writes in very stark, dichotomous, either/or terminology, which I believe is detrimental to her cause.   When describing the sad state of Catholic belief and practice, she often dismisses, tout court, what she terms “cultural Catholicism.”  Cultural Catholicism is, in her reading, hardly Catholicism at all; it is the negative opposite of her “intentional discipleship.”  Where intentional disciples make an active, self conscious effort to live the faith, cultural Catholics passively go through the motions; where intentional disciples believe in an active, personal relationship with God, cultural Catholics believe in the impersonal, institution of the Church, and don’t have a relationship with God; and so forth.   She qualifies these types of statements, but just barely; to read her book, one would get impression that everything that was not of a dogmatic nature between Trent and Vatican II was now completely obsolete.  This sense is all the more disconcerting in that this is not explicitly what she wrote, but she emphasizes the shortcomings of the older approach to catechesis so thoroughly one gets the feeling that her qualifications are almost an afterthought.   And then there is the question of accuracy:  is what she calls cultural Catholicism really all that bad?  Was there nothing worth salvaging, repairing, conserving, renewing, in the pre-conciliar Church?  Again, she never says anything of the sort, but a reader could be forgiven for thinking that is what she meant.

The second major problem I see is related to this; namely, the way she characterizes the relationship between past and present, and not merely between the Church practices pre and post Vatican II.  In order to stress the need for conscious, active, “intentional” living out of the faith, she titles one of her chapters “God Has No Grandchildren,” proclaiming that that cultural Catholicism, i.e. “rites of passage, or cultural, peer or family pressure,” the best definition she gives of cultural Catholicism in the book.  Again, she never says so, but this sounds an awful lot like saying traditions don’t matter, only one’s personal experience, one’s very private, personal experience of a relationship with God matters.  Which does sounds a lot like the “Protestantism” I don’t believe exists.  I believe what she is trying to say is that one needs to make a serious, arduous personal effort to keep tradition alive, and to have a personal relationship with God as an individual in order for the public, communal aspects of the faith to communicate God’s graces to us.  I think.  But again, the language she uses almost makes the two things sound incompatible, as if the institutional and relational aspects of the Church were somehow at odds; institutions bad, relationships good.  It is almost as if she wants the Church to become, in sociological jargon, a movement rather than an institution, as if she wants the Church to revert to the form it took in the earliest centuries of its history (which, again, sounds like the P word).  This is not surprising, given her emphasis on intentional communities, and the success of several of these over the last forty years or so (Opus Dei, Communion and Liberation, etc.) gives credence to this.  But the Church cannot be only a movement of the Spirit; it is of necessity going to be an institution of the Spirit as well.  It cannot leap back into time and replay the early history of the Church, untouched by the institutional accretions of the intervening centuries, even if it must prune some things.  She never says this, but one could easily get the impression from what she does say that the institutional aspects of the Church are somehow inessential.

A third complaint is related to this, and that is related to how she talks about “personal” relationships in the book.  I mean this in two senses:  1) the word personal as a descriptor of human relationships, and 2) as the make up one’s individual psychology.  The second problem is more obvious than the first.  She says that all of her recommendations are applicable to anyone, and not merely to the charismatic community she is a part of, but one gets the feeling that this is not the case.  Weddell relates several anecdotes about who she or someone else has brought up the notion of intentional discipleship to a pastor, evinces too much enthusiasm about their relationship with God to members of a parish, they get rebuked for sounding “too Protestant.”  Now, I believe this is uncharitable, and she is right to complain about such treatment.  But truth be told, she puts an enormous amount of emphasis on visible signs of spiritual conversion, so that despite her statement that “our goal is not to create a community of spiritual elites,” (122) what she is describing often comes across as a Catholicism designed for people with Type A, overachiever personalities.   What is unfortunate about this is that I do believe the substance of what she is saying could and should be translated into the idiom of traditionalists and neo-conservative Catholics, but I’m afraid they would be turned off by the way she presents her argument.  More than this, she also does not see that, however well intentioned she may be, her ideas about intentional discipleship could easily be perverted into something very much like a the notion of a spiritual elite within parishes.  And yes, I know:  abusus non tollit usum.  Everything good can be abused.  But then not everything is abused with equal facility; some ideas, beliefs, are easier to abuse than others.  Greater awareness of this possibility in her book would have been welcome.

This leads me to the other problem with the “personal relationship” ideal she espouses, namely that there is more ambiguity to the word “personal” than she seems to realize.  She complains that when she talks to people in some parishes about focusing on Jesus, she gets the complaint that this sounds like “me and Jesus” talk that Evangelicals like to indulge in.  She points out, rightfully, that if Catholics had more personal experience of Jesus in their parishes, this would not be a problem.  But she doesn’t seem to understand that all this talk about a “personal relationship” with Jesus and personal experience can sound like an assertion of one’s private experience over and against the public, objective  aspects of the faith, such as the sacraments.  Again, I know she doesn’t intend this, and it certainly is not a question of either/or, but the language and terminology she uses often does give that impression.

And then there is the whole problem of ambiguity.  She seems to assume that a “personal relationship” means only warmth, intimacy, empathy, when in fact for some people, personal relationships often mean judgment, anxiety, frustration.  I myself am a somewhat introverted person, and though at times I have found a lack of community within the Church a burden, I have also found solace in what you could call the “impersonality” of the Church.  I remember telling my conversion story to a young priest friend of mine, and he remarked that I really came to the faith on my own.  I had never thought of it that way, but the point was I really wasn’t looking for a personal relationship with God at that point (though yes, that is what I needed, still need, and have found).  I was looking for truth, independent of my subjective experiences and personal relationships.  That indeed is not enough, but it is necessary.  Weddell never says otherwise, but her focus on what I take to be a certain type of personality obscures this in her book, in my opinion.

The greatest strength of Weddell’s argument as I see it is that she takes the subjective experience of people who are outside organized religion altogether, the so-called Nones, seriously, and gives good advice about how to appeal to people who are outside of the Church.   And there is no debate about it, no matter how much people like myself don’t like it, if the Church is going to evangelize the world, she is going to have to reckon with people’s subjective desires, wants, and feelings.  One cannot turn back the clock to the pre-Reformation era, and wish such a change away, and Weddell’s books is a serious attempt to grapple with this change, and I commend her for it.  (Indeed, I’ve often thought that John Paul II’s Theology of the Body was more important for the dignity with which it treats human subjectivity than for its teachings on sexuality, which are pretty much what they have always been.)

But it is also important, I think, to take seriously the subjective experiences of people who are already Catholic as well, without abandoning the Church’s dogmas, teachings, and tradition.  This is something that the pastoral traditions of the Church in particular have difficulty changing, without seeming to lapse into relativism; I don’t know how many times I heard my old spiritual director tell me, in effect, that my feelings didn’t matter at all.  I understood what he meant:  feelings cannot determine truth.  But this doesn’t mean they are without significance, and telling people that they are (or what is more to the point, seeming to say this) is not going to convince anybody to embrace the Cross, baptized or no.

But the danger of this attempt to start presenting the Gospel this way, in a manner designed to appeal to people’s subjective desires, ought to be clear enough.  One has to, at some point, move beyond what originally attracts one to the faith (without, of course, abandoning it), to grow spiritually, and be able to put one’s feelings aside,  to “put on Christ” in St. Paul’s words.  But Weddell’s book doesn’t really address this terribly well, in my opinion; again, she qualifies her self (“our own personal witness can help illuminate and make living, compelling, and believable aspects of Jesus’ story, but it cannot take the place of Jesus’ story,” p.202) but such qualifications seem like a needle in a haystack most of the time.  Her emphasis is so completely on the individual’s own active efforts at discipleship that it does at times seem almost Pelagian.  She says at one point that “Discipleship is never unconscious,” (64), a statement that, if taken to mean discipleship is the “conscious” part of the life of faith, is unproblematic.  But she puts so much emphasis on discipleship that it seems as if it is, if not the only part of living as a Christian, then the only important part.  And that to be a disciple and therefore a Christian means being a super-Christian all the time, making Herculean efforts all the time.  Perhaps this is why all of the groups of the highly committed within the American Church–those who attend liturgy every week, who follow Church teachings, the “sweat the details” type of Catholics–like the “Evangelical Catholics” of George Weigel, the traditionalists, the Charismatics, and the like, so often act like groups of the elect.  They are all so keenly aware they are a special minority that they feel as if they must act like super hero Christians, or else the Church will die, because they alone are the “true disciples.” And I confess, I have acted this way myself in the past.  But it does seem to me sometimes you have to be an “unconscious” believer, if for no other reason than that you can trust the Church, you can trust the Bible, etc., and therefore don’t need to be as utterly and relentless self-conscious all the time, as Weddell seems to suggest you need to be.  Weddell is right to want to wake many Catholics out of their lethargy, and this is the right problem to focus on, but I wish she had been a little more cognizant of the dangers and ambiguities of the path she wants the Church to take.

I’m beginning to repeat myself at this point, so I won’t make too many more comments about the book.  I have other minor complaints.  Weddell complains about labeling people, i.e. those who are “disciples,” but routinely uses epithets such as “postmodern,” “cultural Catholics,” to describe those with whom she disagrees.  But this is a mere quibble.  And to repeat myself one last time, I don’t think she is advocating any of the problematic things I have expressed concerns over in this review; she has the good of the Church and of Christ firmly in mind.  But her vision is not without its problems, and I hope I have dealt charitably with her book in trying to express my concerns.  Forming Intentional Disciples is not the final word on the problems that Church faces, not by a long shot, and hopefully it will at least engender a more frank conversation about how the Church proclaims its message to a world that is becoming increasingly opaque to it.



Alypius Minor

~ by Alypius on September 18, 2013.

9 Responses to “The Curate’s Egg: A Review of Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples”

  1. In a nutshell, I think you are reading too much into Weddell’s statements, especially personal relationship. And know, that, in contrast to the attitude of “Rebuilt”, she has the utmost respect for practicing Catholics no matter their stage of development in the faith. But even if overstated, the inertia of the prevailing attitude of “the sacraments will take care of it” needs some serious jarring loose. By the way, she is not part of a “charismatic” group, if that’s whay you were referring to, and the Catherine of Siena Institute is based in Colorado Springs, CO, not Seattle where it originated.

    • Hell Jim,

      Thank you for your comment. I didn’t mean to impugn Sherry Weddell’s motives, and I am certain that she wrote the book with the same love for God that motivates her ministry. (I am certainly not one to criticize; its not a stretch to say she has done more to bring people into the faith than I ever will.) And I agree, sometimes you have to shout really loudly to wake people from their slumbers. However, my criticism of her book wasn’t for her passion or her intentions, but of the language she uses, which I believe obscures what she is trying to say. And whether she is part of a charismatic Catholic or no, is not a major concern of mine. But I got the impression that her book was pitched to certain type of Catholic, and that this is unfortunate; I think the substance of what she has to say is important. Nor did I read anything into her words, but was concerned that they could give a very different impression than the one I believe she wanted to convey.


      Alypius Minor

  2. At the risk of quibbling – I believe you are quibbling.
    You suggest that Sherry Weddell’s approach borders on Pelagianism and
    ” that to be a disciple and therefore a Christian means being a super-Christian all the time, making Herculean efforts all the time”. I think this is a mis-reading of her work. To be a disciple means that Christ is at the center of one’s orientation and is the formative influence in one’s decisions. You seem to think that Sherry’s notion is of some super type A high achieving religious zealot. A disciple is one who follows – and unfortunately far too many in our pews think more in terms of avoiding hell and being “good” than in terms of a transformational encounter with Christ. And even more unfortunately – that approach is emptying our pews.

  3. Katie,

    Thank you for your comment. I believe if you read the post again, you’ll find what I said was that at times it seemed as if Weddell was saying those sorts of things, not that she meant to say them. I also reiterated, at the end, that “I don’t think she is advocating any of the problematic things I have expressed concerns over in this review.” It was the way she presented her main concern–that people take a more self-conscious, responsible attitude toward living out their faith, something I agree with–that I had problems with. To sum it up: I believe someone reading the book, in good faith, might come away with the impression that she was advocating those problematic things mentioned in the review, if they did not read it very carefully. That is my main criticism. I supposed this is true of any book, but it did appear more of a problem in her work than in the works of other writers I have encountered. But then that is only one person’s opinion, of course.

    Alypius minor

  4. Might the problem be that Sherry Weddell has shaken your tree a little, that you have to criticise the tone rather than the content of her book? This is a bit like complaining about the colour of the fire engine that comes to save your house!

    • Not really. My point was that the way she makes her arguments–the tone, if you like–undermines the substance of what she has to say. My criticism is that she is not attentive enough to this, and made her book easier to misunderstand than it needed to be. And I would add that this is something I’ve learned from experience as a teacher at the college level for over ten years. Students (and people in general) tend to ignore the details of what they hear or read, and only retain a general impression of what they have listened to or read, even if that impression is at odds with the substance of what was said or written. And I think Weddell could have done a better job of accounting for this in her book.

  5. Thank you for the post!

    This past Friday a local parish held the “Called & Gifted Program.” There were quite a few red flags.

    Something doesn’t sit right when the Blessed Mother isn’t mentioned, when the speakers sound like tel-evangelists and seeming to think quiet devotion is misinterpreted as “unexcited”. (You stated something similar that I agree with). There was an insertion of new words seeming to replace the norm, e.g. lay office (for one) instead of vocation or state in life.

    Did I mention the Institute is running a 50$ per person special now,, so how much money did they charge the diocese before the special? It’s a 40$ charge per hour to go into more detail about one’s specific “charism”.

    Well — the best place for Spiritual Direction is the Confessional. The next would be with a trained Religious. All these people go to college and have theology degrees which doesn’t necessarily make them theologians. I just had the sense that this was a gimmick. The Spiritual Charism Inventory looks like a Briggs Myers. In the book it states they were using the Protestant version for Catholics then SW decided to change it for the needs of Catholics.

    At the end I asked the female speaker why it was important to “name” spiritual gifts when Padre Pio stated he didn’t have any … he was humble. He was God’s tool. She had no idea who he was. When I mentioned sitting in front of the Blessed Sacrament produces a relationship with God, she just looked at me.

    I think this is a gimmick and not ready to toss the Rosary Beads, or any of the other traditions. There were a few barbs about Catholics thrown out, and that wasn’t appreciated. We do have doctrine and tradition and Scripture and the Fathers and the Councils. We have the Mass and Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament and Confession.

    You know, when looking up info on the topic there was only one other person who dared to state concerns, and he was lambasted by Mark Shea.

    I don’t know who first used the term “cradle Catholic” as if it were an insult, but I’m tired of it. I’m not ashamed at being brought up as a CAtholic from the hearth … from the cradle. Those who have fallen away have fallen away because of confusion and not getting the truth. Unfortunately, it may be that some of the new Catholics/Converts don’t know the faith well enough to be preaching to us. It’s not as if they’re all Scott Hahn. Maybe the case with SW is that she is new on the block and may be a great personality wanting to help the Church. I’m not convinced it’s all that solid as her defenders defend.

    Which brings me to my last point — men, good Catholic men, Priests and Bishops – they are the ones who have to lead. There are way too many women placing themselves in positions of spiritual authority.

    There it is.

  6. I am currently reading the book and can only give first impressions. I almost gave up on the book because of the amount of statistical information at the beginning. I apologize for not remembering the author but this reminded me of the quote that says, “there are lies, damn lies and statistics.” I am not implying that any of hers are lies but using quotes are typically to the benefit of the one using them to substantiate what they are writing about. There may be just as many statistics to state the opposite view.
    Perhaps I will get to a point in the book where she explains what a personal relationship is. At this point there is a lot of reference to the personal relationships of other Christian traditions. I may be misinterpreting those relationships but they seem to be about a relationship with Jesus Christ and I haven’t heard about a relationship with the Father and the Spirit from those who have a relationship outside of the Catholic Church. If those relationships are based Sola Scriptura that would leave out the two thousand years of Tradition of a lived out relationship with all three Persons. To me Jesus life is about doing the will of the Father with the help of the Spirit.
    I look forward to reading what the daily life of an Intentional Disciple is. I will try to remember to post after I have completed the reading. Also I have tried to find out the background on Sherry Weddell and what I have found is minimal and does not include any formal formation or training. The “ABOUT THE AUTHOR” at the end of the book doesn’t mention who she is but only (this is not meant in a negative way) what she has done.

    • Yes, statistics can be misleading, but Sherry isn’t using them to make convoluted deductions to prove some subtle point. Rather, if one, for example, notes that a disturbingly large percentage of American
      Catholics don’t practice a relationship with God that is deeper than, say, “May the Force be with you”, or merely tipping their hat to the “eternal ground of being”, then something clearly isn’t working in our traditional formation of Catholics. Her approach has never been theoretical, but rather, grew from actual experience with thousands of Catholics and hundreds of parishes. Essentially, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are, for a vast number of Catholics, something they read about. A “personal” relationship is the difference between merely reading a biography about someone and knowing them with love and affection. Jesus said, “I call you friends…”.

      So…..what are we going to do about it? That’s what Sherry is offering, and that’s why the book has been a Catholic best seller (over 100,000). So many working in the Church know there is a problem with the formation of Catholics, but haven’t been able to put their finger on it or find a viable solution. I think Sherry has done both.

      But rest assured, she is thoroughly grounded in Catholic theology. I would venture to say that she has studied and know’s more about Catholic teaching and theology when it comes to the laity than just about anyone on the planet. She is totally committed to teaching with the Church.

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